When Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim notched career victory No. 600, he said it wasn’t such a big deal. That changed some when he passed his next milestone.
“More than anything else, there’s just a sense of relief,” he said when he joined the 700-win club in 2005.
Jim Boeheim has manned the Syracuse sideline for 1,203 games and counting.
That sense of relief is now 199 wins in the past, with an even bigger accomplishment looming.
After No. 4 Syracuse defeated Canisius 85-61 Saturday night, Boeheim is just one victory from his 900th career win. An Orange triumph over Detroit on Monday night at home in the Carrier Dome, and Boeheim can join Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight as the only Division I coaches to reach that number.
And before the calendar turns over to 2013, there’s a good chance Boeheim will pass Knight, who retired with 902 wins, to move into second place behind Coach K, who currently has 936.
“It’s a shocking number,” Boeheim said last week in an exclusive interview. “I remember when I was at 100 and I looked at Adolph Rupp (with 876) and said, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen. Ever. Impossible.’
“When I got to 800, I felt it was quite a milestone. But 900 is really big.”
That might be as pumped up as Boeheim will ever get on any topic that centers on him. The introverted son of an undertaker was long known for his facial contortions and so-called whining during games and in press conferences. But winning has brought respect and 900 wins really should speak volumes.
ESPN has moved Monday’s game from ESPNU to ESPN2 to reach a bigger audience. Orange T-shirts are already printed to honor the accomplishment and will be ready for sale. But Boeheim always downplays personal accomplishments, so don’t expect him to run around the Carrier Dome floor that is named after him, searching for someone to hug if he wins.
“I appreciate it right now; I really do,” Boeheim said. “People think I don’t. I just don’t dwell on it. I don’t need to die before I appreciate it.
“In coaching, your only concern is this year’s team. And any other thing is in the way. That’s all. It’s not that you don’t appreciate getting to a milestone. You do. But anything like this, you don’t want it to get in the way of this year’s team. It won’t get in the way. You just need to get past it.”
That’s the philosophy that has carried Boeheim to this point -- and it is the first thing people need to understand about the man. Boeheim has never been afraid to be himself, never been afraid to do it his way.
Early in his career, he was chastised for playing soft schedules, never leaving the Carrier Dome for non-conference games and padding his annual win totals. Critics said his teams were undisciplined and not particularly well coached. His commitment to the 2-3 zone was scorned by the media (including this writer) as outdated in a man-to-man world.
But all the zone did was beat you. Boeheim makes it work by finding players to make it successful. The zone helped his teams make deep runs in the NCAA tournament. Other coaches have tried to pick his brain and tried to understand the zone textbook.
They never mastered it like Boeheim. It delivered a national championship in 2003 and, in turn, drove Boeheim to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Through the years, Boeheim has become an iconic figure for Syracuse fans.
“In my opinion, he was always a son of a gun to play against,” said former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who retired just before this season with 873 victories and many great Big East battles against Boeheim. “He believed in that zone and most of the time he would beat you. Once he got a lead, it was hard to come back on him. His genius was the fact that he always got the best players in the right spots.”
The second thing people need to understand about Boeheim is his loyalty. Like North Carolina’s Dean Smith, the first coach to pass Kentucky’s Rupp, all of his wins have come at Syracuse. Boeheim first stepped onto the Syracuse campus 50 years ago, as a freshman who would go on to play in the same backcourt with Dave Bing. He was an assistant coach, then became Syracuse’s head coach in 1976. Only Jim Phelan, who logged 1,354 games at Mt. St. Mary’s, ever coached more games at one school than Boeheim, now at 1,203 at Syracuse.
Rick Pitino, one of Boeheim’s former assistants, once asked Boeheim where he would live, if he could live anywhere in the world.
“Syracuse,” Boeheim answered. It’s a story that gained popularity at the 1996 Final Four, when Pitino’s Kentucky team defeated Syracuse in the national championship game. Syracuse lost the last game of the year, but Boeheim became a bit more human in his exchanges with the media at that Final Four. Many observers agree that his reputation took a turn for the better after that. His charitable side off the court has become better known as well.
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Put it all together and Boeheim seems to have a real comfort zone.
“It’s a good place,” Boeheim says of his Upstate New York home. “It fits me. Sometimes places on the other side of the fence aren’t that good.”
Boeheim, 68, has produced successful assistants such as Pitino and Mike Hopkins, who will eventually replace Boeheim when he retires. But unlike other coaches at the top of the all-time winning list, he didn’t really have a mentor. Krzyzewski was a student of Knight at Army. Smith and Rupp both studied under Phog Allen at Kansas. Roy Williams was a product of Smith’s system at North Carolina. Henry Iba mentored many of the all-time top winners.
“I think I’ve relied on watching other coaches, not necessarily working with them, but watching them,” Boeheim said. “I worked with (Krzyzewski in two Olympics), which helped. I watched Knight and his teams at Army. We played against Army. As an assistant, I watched Coach Wooden’s teams. Then in our league, I watched John Thompson (Georgetown) and Jim Calhoun and Rollie Massimino (Villanova) and Lou Carnesecca (St. John's).
“I think you learn from all of those coaches. I had a front row seat to work against those coaches. It’s not exactly the same as working under them, but it’s a learning experience and a really valuable one. It’s probably been overlooked a little bit. You either learn and get better, or you won’t be coaching.”
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Boeheim laughs when he says that. It has been a long time since he worried about job security. He has endured a long NCAA investigation into the program, some crushing defeats, tirades and arguments with the media, and the cloud of last year’s scandal regarding accusations of sexual abuse against long-time assistant coach Bernie Fine. He never let any of those situations become distractions for his players.
He probably hasn’t gotten enough credit for his recruiting, especially in a location where snow can start piling up around the first practice and often stays on the ground well after the Final Four. Boeheim has made adjustments that allow him to redefine his teams one year after another.
“You try to have guys prepared so that when you lose guys you have guys,” he said. “We’ve been able to do that for a long time. Way back. When Pearl Washington left, we had Sherman Douglas, who was a pretty good replacement. We’ve done that a number of times over the years.”
He has done it again this year. Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph took the Orange to the Elite Eight last season and even though Fab Melo was ruled ineligible twice, Syracuse finished 34-3, setting a record for most wins in school history. This season, Boeheim has shuffled the deck and the Orange are 9-0 with Brandon Triche back and James Southerland and Michael Carter-Williams accepting much larger roles.
Some of the same Syracuse fans who once ridiculed him, now adore him. Why not? He has stood the test of time. He’s in the Hall of Fame, has won a national championship and worked with Krzyzewski to bring home two Olympic gold medals.
And after Monday night, more than likely, he will be in that Holy Trinity of college coaching with 900 wins.
“It never goes away for a coach,” Boeheim said when asked about his public perception. “That’s just the landscape. That’s the way it is. You’re only as good as your next game. It doesn’t really matter what you’ve done.
“Winning changes things a little bit more. And I think the other thing -- at this stage -- if you stay this long, (critics) just kind of give up, don’t they? What’s the point? They lost the battle, you know?”